Richmond chemical plant fined $1.15 million for years-long air pollution violations

A sulfuric acid manufacturing plant in Richmond was fined $1.15 million Thursday for violations connected to faulty emissions monitors, local air-quality officials said.

Since at least 2014, Chemtrade underreported sulfur dioxide emissions after failing to properly calibrate, operate and maintain its continuous monitoring system, according to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

These measurements at the plant, located at 525 Castro St. next to the Chevron Refinery in the city’s western industrial hub, are crucial to determining compliance with emissions limits.

While the air district’s audit did not find evidence that Chemtrade’s sulfur dioxide emissions exceeded its permitted limits, BAAQMD reported that the company’s monitoring system was unable to reliably monitor the extent of the plant’s emissions.

Sulfur dioxide — a colorless, pungent gas used to produce fertilizers, explosives and petroleum catalysts — can have adverse impacts on the respiratory system, including wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. When combined with water and air, the chemical forms the main component of acid rain.

BAAQMD officials said Chemtrade’s reported emission rates are estimated to be an average of 33% lower since 2014. Agency staff have recommended that a portion of the $1.15 million fine go towards community efforts to improve air quality in Richmond.

These problems were a long time coming; the agency’s Hearing Board had previously issued seven notices to the Richmond facility prior to Thursday’s announcement, including an abatement order in April 2022.

Additionally, Chemtrade was fined $135,000 six years ago for air pollution violations from 2009 through 2014, including loading alkylation acid from storage tanks into trucks without permits — potentially fouling the air with sulfuric acid fumes.

Chemtrade could not be reached for comment.

While most of the problems occurred while the plant was owned by General Chemical West, Chemtrade–which acquired the plant in 2014–claimed in 2017 that all of the violations found during a voluntary audit were corrected.

According to a Richmond Chamber of Commerce directory, Chemtrade is currently one of North America’s largest suppliers of sulfuric acid, liquid sulfur dioxide and sodium nitrite, as well as a leading regional supplier of sulfur, sodium chlorate, potassium chloride, and zinc oxide.

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